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France turns the page on darkest days of history

French President Francois Hollande walks back from the train car symbolizing the Drancy camp, during the inauguration of the new Shoah memorial in Drancy, a Paris suburb, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. France has inaugurated a memorial to tens of thousands of Jews forced into a World War II internment camp that was set up with cooperation from the Nazi collaborationist Vichy government. (AP Photo/Philippe Wojazer, Pool)

DRANCY, France: France has finally come to terms with its role in the deportation of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps, President Francois Hollande said Friday as he inaugurated a new Holocaust memorial center. “Now our duty is to shape the spirit of the generations to come,” Hollande added in a speech at the opening of a major new education center next to the site of the infamous Drancy transit camp from where some 70,000 people were sent to their deaths.

“Teaching the past is the only way to prevent it from being repeated.”

Hollande drew a line under decades of dispute over the extent to which the deportations were aided and abetted by the French state, police and ordinary citizens.

“It is no longer about establishing the truth, it is about passing it on,” he said in a speech delivered in the presence of representatives of France’s Jewish community who included a handful of survivors of the camp.

Drancy, an internment camp improvised from a block of social housing about 15 kilometers from central Paris, had been the site of an “abominable crime,” Hollande said.

Of the 6 million Jews sent to the death camps, 76,000 came from France and 63,000 were deported from Drancy, he said.

“Of all ages, of all origins and nationalities and from every social class, they only had one thing in common; they were targeted for one sole reason: they were Jews,” the president said. “That was enough for them to be sent to their deaths.”

Among those deported from Drancy were the vast majority of 13,152 Jews rounded up in Paris on July 16 and 17, 1942 and detained in the Velodrome d’Hiver in the city.

Ordered by Nazi officers and carried out by French police and civil servants, the Rafle du Vel-d’Hiv was one of the darkest moments in the country’s history.

The role of the French state and police was only finally fully acknowledged in a public apology issued in 1995 by then president Jacques Chirac.

Hollande went further within a month of being elected president. “The truth is that it was a crime committed in France, by France,” he said in July.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 22, 2012, on page 8.

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